New Study Finds a Need for Clearer Guidelines for Medicating Autism, ADHD

Using medication to regulate behavior is a hot topic in special needs education. Way back in July of 2011, my first post for ChildsWork actually explored just that phenomenon. In that post, I asked whether or not medication for ADHD was the right choice for many parents, children and teachers and provided guidance for starting the conversation with parents in regards to the benefits of properly controlled medication in behavioral-modification and educational success.

At the same time, I acknowledged that in today’s over-medicated society, many parents and children/patients are rightfully skeptical about the utility of medication in the first place. Many children, especially in my own era, experienced a “fog” on ADHD medication that was designed to control them, not help them. This stigma, along with the very little understanding of exactly what makes ADHD and autism “tick” in the first place, has caused a divide in the medical community when it comes to medication used in ADHD and autism treatment. Guidelines, if there are any, are hazy at best.

Looking at the Numbers – How Much Medicating Is There?

With the lack of guidelines in mind, a recent study conducted by Paul Shattuck from Washington University in St. Louis and published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology decided to take a look at the medication rates of children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and those suffering from a combination of the two problems. Though the study found that children with autism spectrum disorders and related behavioral problems are medicated at a relatively low rate of about 34%, those with ADHD are medicated much more often (58%). Finally, children diagnosed with both ADHD and autism are medicated at a rate in between those two figures, 49%.

In addition to these raw figures, Shattuck’s study also examined medication rates by race. These numbers were perhaps the most telling as they revealed that black teens were far less likely to receive medication than their white counterparts.

Looking to the Future – Medication Guidelines

More than simple statistics, Shattuck’s study revealed that when it comes to medicating ADHD and autism, the medical community is at an impasse, relying on trial-and-error far more often than proven methods and indications. This is part of what leads to parental refusal of medication, even in the case where the behavioral modifications allotted by medicating these children are to the parents’ and child’s benefit.

At the end of the study, Shattuck remarked that there is a significant problem with the “high rates of antipsychotic, antidepressant/anti-anxiety and stimulant medication use[d] in these youths.” Basically, the medical community’s poor understanding of the functioning of the autistic or ADHD brain along with a lack of guidance when it comes to medication has made the process of treating these children difficult and left major questions open for researchers, parents, and caregivers alike.

What are your thoughts about medication in children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorders?

* Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul

About AD Midd

AD is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally, AD currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @ADMidd and on Facebook (

14 thoughts on “New Study Finds a Need for Clearer Guidelines for Medicating Autism, ADHD

  1. I have an adult autistic son – severe symptoms and non-verbal. We medicated very little when he was at home and I beat myself up constantly after he entered a group home due to anger issues that we could not handle. I was criticized by many but now that he is medicated, I think as difficult as it was, I am glad we did not medicate because I think he is over-medicated today and I think the medical staff do NOT understand the symptoms and behaviors of autism. As a society both educationally and medically, we need to get in step with these children and adults to understand what their needs are.

  2. Medicating these children is simply another symptom of our “treat the symptoms not the source” medical industry where pharmacuetical companies write the agenda and encourage off-label prescriptions by physicians with little to no understanding of the underlying condition and no science or research to back it up. The same doctors that ignore our children’s underlying gut issues and immune system problems seem to have no problem writing a script for a neuroleptic. Parents too often are not given other options and are told little to nothing about risk to benefit scenarios. Many parents regret the other route from the mother above, parents that medicated their child without asking enough questions, only to get a sedated, zombie like child, quickly becoming obese, suicidal, homicidal, or even experiencing severe heart complications, tics, and other permanent side-affects. I have found it more than ironic that a medical professional can look at me with a straight face and say, “we don’t know what causes it, we don’t know of any treatments, your child’s co-morbid conditions are simply part and parcel of their autism and hence I am not going to treat that either, but here fill this script for an anti-psychotic”. “Oh, and all that stuff you hear about diets and ABA therapy are just people trying to make money off of desperate parents”. It has always amazed me that criticizm flys at parents “treating” their child’s autism, being pro-active about research, therapies, diets, etc., to the point of being accused of “experimenting” on their children. But fill a Dr.’s script for anti-psychotics, nerve-seizing drugs and the like and parenting is not questioned at all…you are eligible for “mother of the year” even though the risks and side affects can be deadly. I can assure you a gluten free/casein free is not nor ever will be deadly. I predict the next big movement in this nation is going to be to OCCUPY MEDICINE and take it back from pharmaceutical companies who have no ones best interest in mind besides their pocket books. And then fire and replace every person in our federal alphabet agencies who are sleeping with the enemy for their own future 6 figure jobs in those same companies.
    The drugging of America’s children is a crime, and everyone involved should be in jail not making 6 figure incomes. It’s time to take back our health, the health of our children and tell pharmaceutical companies we are boycotting their poisons. Mainstream science and medicine ignoring the eye-witness stories of parents is going to come back and haunt them. Ghost writing the science, pretending to be who they are not is going to come back and haunt them. I, along with tens of thousands of other parents have just said NO to their drugs and profit machines in favor of REAL health, real nutrition, real science, and real life. And for many of us we are getting our childre back, healthy, whole, and with a future. Big pharma knows they simply cannot compete with that, so instead they try to shut the message down, shoot the messengers, and deny the science by not conducting any and claiming that is proof it doesn’t work. Thank God, more and more parents are seeing through their lies and games and their children are benefiting from it. Let’s just hope that no other parent loses a child for refusing these life-shortening and unproven drugs for their child, that is the most dangerouos road we could travel.

    • Thank you so much for your perspective on this matter. I totally agree that there is a large tendency for over-medication in this country and I am excited to see how these grassroots campaigns impact the treatment options for ADHD and autistic children in the future.

  3. My 15 year old daughter is on the spectrum and regrettably we tried many medications in an attempt to regulate her behaviors. We discovered neurofeedback brain training and the self regulation she gained over time allowed us to eliminate her medications. She is not perfect but vastly improved and she doesn’t have to deal with the inevitable side effects of these powerful drugs.

    • Thank you for your input, John. I believe that the choice to medicate or not to medicate is highly individualized. Part of the problem with ASD is that each person presents differently and, really, no one knows why. As parents, we need to do what’s best for our children as individuals and I am glad to see that you agree.

  4. I have a PDD, ADHD seven year old and was not using any medication until he began having real issues with hyperactivity and a true inability to concentrate or focus in his first grade class. When it became apparent that could not be properly be taught and other classmates where also becoming affected due to his hyperactivity. I had no choice but to begin to use medication management. I feel if a child is not able to be taught in the Classroom because of behaviors then those behaviors must be addressed with meds and therapy. I am not saying I like the fact he is in these medications, I wish he had no need of them. I constantly worry about side effects and long term effects but I know with out these medications he can not get everything he deserves within the Classroom setting.

  5. I couldn’t agree more strongly with the observation that medication of kids on the spectrum is handled by trial- particularly when two or more diagnoses are involved. My son’s primary diagnosis is Tourette Syndrome, although he also has social and behavioral issues associated with autism spectrum disorders. We resisted medication initially because we could not get clear information regarding side effects, but finally accepted a neurologist’s recommendation to try risperidone to address the rages that were making life unbearable for all of us. It helped significantly and remains his main medication, but when my son’s TS-related palilalia worsened to the point that he could not effectively communicate, we sought advice from a nationally-renowned, well-respected TS expert who advised a completely different panel of meds. Although great care was taken in tapering off risperidone and introducing the other meds, the entire next year was an absolute nightmare due to extreme and aggressive emotional outbursts and inappropriate behavio

  6. My son has non-verbal learning disorder with confusional migraines. There are times entire skill sets are wiped out, and thses headaches present without pain. He has fantastic doctors who keep him on the lowest possible doses of his stiulant meds. They have almost eliminated the problem. Now, there is a long laundry list of things that we do for him that also help prevent major problems. My advice would be to do everything you can for your child mentally, physically, socially, and to supplement all of these with meds if needed. If you feel your child’s (of any age) doctor is guessing, consider finding another doctor. Not all docs guess about medicine. There are standards and there are long term studies. Be proactive and see what you can find.

  7. I have a seven year old son with severe ADHD. His teachers say he is brilliant but that he simply can not focus. I am empathetic with his situation as I am ADD myself. I didn’t want to use medication so I’ve been trying everything possible to avoid it. I spend $330 per month on tutoring and spent six months taking him to therapy to no avail. I got A LOT of slack from various teachers like : “He’s so brilliant! imagine how brilliant he could be if he could focus!” and a little of my own self induced guilt like: “Poor kid. It makes me sad that he hates school so much. He would enjoy it (and life a lot more) a lot more if he wasn’t constantly being told to pay sit down and attention.

    I was all set to put him on Ritalin but my insurance copay would’ve been $150 per month. I thought about Adderal but thought twice after witnessing the side effects in my frend’s son, who cried at the drop of a hat on that stuff.

    Just before trying giving up and trying medication anyway, I called an herbalist who put him on three different herbal supplements and some vitamins and at last we have success! He has to take a little cocktail of supplements in the morning but there are no negative side effects and the herbalist said that the longer he is on it, the less he needs of the supplement (instead of the other way around).

    All of his teachers are raving about his performance and my son is delighted about how much easier and more fun school is. I am thrilled that it worked and ecstatic that I sticker to my guns and stubbornly refused to give into using medication before exhausting all other options!

    • Julia,
      Such a wonderful outcome! Please consider providing us with some more info about the herbalist and the types of supplements. I know each individual with ADHD is different but I’m sure our readers would like to know more about your experience.


      • My son is taking 2 capsules of Gabatone Active K-39 (by Apex Energetics) and 2 tablets of Attention Link (by Hi Tech Pharmaceuticals) in addition to 1 ml dropper full of Synaptol ( You can buy all of these supplements online. I saw the Atention Link on

        I also have him taking 4 capsules 3x daily of Empower Plus vitamins from Although I’m not religious about the 3 times a day part so I think it’s the other supplements that have helped him the most.

        Having said that, I personally have been using the Empower vitamins for 8 years and have successfully treated type 1 Bipolar Disorder with only these vitamins and no medication. I’ve had two babies on the stuff with no post-partum mania or depression. Ask any shrink, and they’ll confirm that there’s nothing like a a pregnancy and its’ post-partum period to bring on a manic or depressive episode.

        In addition to treating Bipolar Disorder, they are also supposed to be effective at treating ADHD, Schizophrenia and other CNS disorders. I can tell lots of stories about being psychotic and in a straight jacket in a psychiatric hospital. These vitamins have been an absolute miracle for me.

        The Herbalist is Jeff Sherman of Thousand Oaks, CA. His web site is:

  8. I know it is easy to think that children are over medicated but there are those of out there that tried lots of different things before we jumped on the med train. I, in fact carried aroung the script for a couple of weeks before getting it filled. Before meds= 0 chance of stopping my child from running in the street. One med= 40% chance of his responding to verbal commands. Combo meds (risperadal and focalin) = 99% chance he will respond. I think I will continue to get my childs meds filled every month! A social issues is not always so black and white. There are lots of shades of gray.

  9. I feel like I should add that I trained him to swallow pills using m&m candies. For each m&m that he could swallow without chewing, I would let him chew one.

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